The dark side of Bill O'Reilly's advertiser exodus

Even if you want the beleaguered Fox News host gone, be wary of this boycott ...

Bill O'Reilly.
(Image credit: AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Fox News' Bill O'Reilly — the king of cable news — is used to putting his political opponents in the hot seat. Now he finds himself in a hot seat of his own.

The New York Times exposed over the weekend that O'Reilly and Fox have paid $13 million to five women — two as recently as last year — in exchange for dropping their sexual harassment charges against him and not going public. Despite that, Fox News recently renewed his $18 million contract.

However, it might well rue that decision: In the wake of the Times report, dozens of big-name advertisers are pulling out of The O'Reilly Factor in disgust, throwing cable news' top ratings draw's future into jeopardy.

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The advertiser boycott just might work. Markets, with their multiple pressure points, are better at enforcing basic norms of civilized behavior than the political world, where President Trump behaved far worse and still got elected leader of the most powerful country on the planet.

In one sense, the power of market pressures to squeeze O'Reilly is good. But there are dangers here, too.

Fox has known about these allegations against O'Reilly for at least a decade. And the picture the Times paints is one of textbook sexual harassment: O'Reilly would allegedly make lewd and explicit advances, promising to use his influence at Fox to help women if they acquiesced to his propositions. If they rebuffed him, he'd turn cold and vindictive, even threatening to "destroy" one when she started contemplating litigation.

O'Reilly, of course, denies all of this, declaring that he is being targeted because he is "prominent and controversial." That would have been more believable if his victims — who include co-workers and guests of his show — weren't all independently reporting the same pattern of behavior (and if two of them didn't have taped phone conversations as proof!).

Despite the advertiser exodus, O'Reilly's viewers are sticking with him so far. To some extent, this is not surprising given that most of us don't launch inquires into the personal lives of people from whom we buy products and services unless it starts affecting their ability to deliver. As Brent Bozell of Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog group, noted, all of this is just "background noise" for Fox viewers. On the other hand, given that O'Reilly is a champion of traditional moral values, and that his fans claim to hold these values dear, his personal life ought to be inseparable from his brand and service.

Fortunately, in a complex and dynamic country with a flourishing market and civil society, America doesn't need O'Reilly's millions of fans to stop watching. Market pressures could squeeze him out on their own.

After all, O'Reilly's viewership doesn't mean much if he loses his ability to monetize it. So far, he's been spectacularly successful in doing so, with his show pulling in a whopping $178 million in ad revenue in 2015, the highest of any cable news show.

That's precisely why the decision by Fox's big advertisers like Mitsubishi, Lexus, BMW, Hyundai, Credit Karma, T. Rowe Price, Allstate, and Mercedes-Benz to either pull out completely or reassign their ads to other shows hits where it hurts. Allstate delivered a pointed statement when it withdrew, noting that "inclusivity and support for women" are paramount values for it. Likewise, UNTUCKit, a men's apparel company, declared that as an employer with a workforce that is two-thirds female, "we take sexual harassment claims very seriously."

In a free society, companies are at liberty to associate — or not — with whomever they choose, which makes ostracism a powerful way of enforcing basic norms.

However, such pressure tactics by advertisers are not entirely unproblematic.

The big problem with many of the companies that are turning against O'Reilly is that they are not doing so of their own accord — but rather because they themselves are under pressure from advocacy groups such as the National Organization of Women. In this case, that's fine given that O'Reilly's misconduct is egregious by any yardstick, and so most people will consider it a good thing that someone was able to step in and do something about it. However, NOW and its ilk are ideological opponents of O'Reilly and his brand of conservative politics. Unlike Fox's management and audience, they are motivated not by the internal health of the organization. They're not operating based on their purity of the market, either. They're manipulating market forces to enforce their own agenda.

Hence, there is a real risk that these fleeing advertisers will look like they've been captured by progressive interest groups trying to undermine Fox. Because in some ways, they have been.

To avoid that perception (and reality), these advertisers will have to be prepared to go after liberal media stars when they fall — as they surely will — with equal vigor. Furthermore, these advertisers must avoid the temptation of using their market clout to dictate editorial decisions, or the backlash against their backlash could be swift too.

O'Reilly, a man who got so drunk on his power that he came to feel invincible, is a victim of his own success. If he is forced out, it will send a powerful message that when those in a position to hold him accountable fell on the job, other forces arose to pick up the slack. But no one in America is (or should be) too big to fail — and that includes those now trying to keep O'Reilly in line.

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Shikha Dalmia

Shikha Dalmia is a visiting fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University studying the rise of populist authoritarianism.  She is a Bloomberg View contributor and a columnist at the Washington Examiner, and she also writes regularly for The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and numerous other publications. She considers herself to be a progressive libertarian and an agnostic with Buddhist longings and a Sufi soul.